VPCC Grad Now University Leader, Big on Empowerment

Empowering others through education is what Dr. Janelle Sokolowich is about. As the associate provost for social mission at Chamberlain University, she has not only excelled in her career but is an advocate for equity and equality in the academic landscape.         

“No matter what my role, I always felt I would be the voice of the person who was marginalized, underserved and may have had multiple challenges,” she said. “That’s the person I want to see walk across that stage. Not that I’m not excited for every student, but I’m particularly excited for those who succeed despite struggles.”

Sokolowich’s position, with its numerous responsibilities, perfectly aligns with her ideology. In the role, the Virginia Peninsula Community College alumna collaborates across the university to ensure projects consider the impact on underserved and marginalized students. This also involves leading the strategic plan by connecting with key stakeholders to enhance student opportunities, access to services, and scholarships.

Additionally, she oversees the Center for Faculty Excellence, supporting faculty in scholarships, community service and career advancement. As part of aligning projects with university goals, she also has a role in strategizing success for licensure exams at undergraduate and graduate levels.

After working in nursing for several years, she transitioned to nursing education in 2008 serving two years as a practical nursing program instructor with Medical Careers Institute in Virginia’s in Hampton Roads region. The rewarding experience led her to continue teaching in Chicago, where she and her husband (then-newlyweds) relocated in 2010. Her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion work grew from serving students of various cultures and backgrounds.

“I found that students who spoke another language at home were really disenfranchised when it came to nursing programs,” she said. “I really loved helping those students focus on what they were going to do, build confidence in their ability and knowledge, and see them pass the finish line.”

“That really began my focus on education and wanting to move through the ranks,” she added, noting Chicago-based Chamberlain University took notice when a former colleague recruited her for a leadership role.

Sokolowich spent nearly seven years at Chamberlain University, serving as dean of academic operations and dean of academic success, deepening her focus on equity and equality. She left for Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she was the academic vice president and dean of the School of Health for three years. Breaking the color barrier in her leadership position at WGU, she “began their strategy for DEI.”

In December 2023, Sokolowich returned to Chamberlain University in her current position and is based in Tampa, Fla.

She credits VPCC, where her connection with nursing started, for paving the way for her career. The Hampton native earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in nursing in 2004, and her life changed.

Her experiences as a pediatric nurse, travel nurse and ICU nurse at healthcare facilities, including Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Georgetown University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta shaped her commitment to guiding nursing students.

“I always found myself taking the nursing student,” she reflected. “When you’re in the unit and you’re busy, it’s very hard to stop and explain what you’re doing. I always found great joy in doing that. I felt empowered to give them power and confidence in who they could be.”

Sokolowich said while her community college experience provided a career pathway, it was also the catalyst for furthering her education. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Phoenix and a doctoral degree in education from Capella University.

She originally attended William & Mary upon graduating from Hampton High School but found she needed a different learning environment. She turned to VPCC.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I happened to be watching commercials and saw an ad about being a nurse. I prayed about it and decided I would apply,” she remembered, pointing out she was on a waiting list and made the cut when someone dropped out. “I got started, and that was it. It was an amazing experience.”

Of all the fond memories from her time at the College, she said one faculty member stands out. Sokolowich said Associate Professor Pamela Biernacki, head of the nursing program who retired from VPCC in 2013, had a lasting impact.

“She really motivated me. Toward the end of my schooling, I ended up in the hospital for about five days, and I had to finish clinical,” said Sokolowich, noting she battled a chronic illness as a child through early adulthood. “You had to do your hours, or you wouldn’t be able to graduate. I was discharged at 7 a.m. I got to clinical at 8 a.m.

“(Professor Biernacki) got me through that day. She was just such a wonderful professor. I said, ‘If ever in my life I get to do something, I’d love to be just like her,’” said Sokolowich, adding she thanked Biernacki among acknowledgments in her dissertation.  

She highlighted the College’s “welcoming culture” and its partnerships that enriched her clinical experiences. She said the innovative nursing lab (located on Mercury Boulevard in Hampton at the time) and robust community engagement contributed to her well-rounded education. 

“Because of some of the partnerships and how well known the College’s nursing program is, I was challenged. Now that I’m in my position, I know how hard it is to solidify partnerships,” she emphasized, recalling clinical rotations at Eastern State Hospital, Newport News Community Health Center and Mary Immaculate Hospital, among other facilities.

“The legacy of (VPCC) within the community and being known to be a valuable partner afforded a lot of very rich clinical experiences. I had a full experience through partnerships across the area,” she added.

While her career is a huge part of her life, Sokolowich puts her family first. This value was instilled in her early on, growing up in a family with a rich history of public service and activism. Engaged in everything from participating in the Civil Rights Movement, pursuing higher education, and owning businesses such as Pride's Barbershop, a well-known establishment in one Hampton neighborhood in the past, her parents and grandparents set the standard for prioritizing family.

Whether it's her husband, their 7-year-old daughter (whom they adopted at birth), or her five stepchildren, three of whom she contributed to raising, Sokolowich emphasizes that nothing surpasses family. She proudly notes all five stepchildren are adults.

Sokolowich is mapping her future with aspirations to become a provost and ultimately publish a framework for supporting underrepresented minorities in online learning environments. At her husband’s urging, she might also consider writing a book to share her experiences and insights as inspiration for others.   

As she remains laser focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, Sokolowich will also continue championing higher education. 

“The impact of higher education is generational,” she emphasized. “It impacts the rest of the generations from every person who comes after them in their family. (Each generation) gets to see what success, accomplishment, and the different life that advancing your degree creates.”